Monthly Archives: February 2007

Fig Leaf Models

While some argue that economist theorists should act more like biology/ecology theorists, some geologists are now arguing instead that environmental theorists should act more like economic theorists.  A New York Times book review of "Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future" says

When coastal engineers decide whether to dredge sand and pump it onto an eroded beach, they use mathematical models to predict how much sand they will need, when and where they must apply it … Orrin H. Pilkey, … recommends … just dredge up a lot of sand and dump it on the beach willy-nilly. This "kamikaze engineering" might not last very long, he says, but projects built according to models do not usually last very long either, and at least his approach would not lull anyone into false mathematical certitude.  …

Dr. Pilkey and his daughter Linda … have expanded this view into an overall attack on the use of computer programs to model nature. … Their book … originated in a seminar Dr. Pilkey organized at Duke to look into the performance of mathematical models used in coastal geology.  …  seminar participants … [concluded] that erroneous assumptions, fudge factors and the reluctance to check predictions against unruly natural outcomes produce models with, as the authors put it, "no demonstrable basis in nature." … 

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Do We Get Used to Stuff, But Not Friends?

There’s an interesting, but rather strangely house-size obsessed article (the author has written a book on building your own house) on happiness in last week’s Washington Post to which Robin (and my Cato boss, David Boaz) alerted me. The author interviews economist Luis Rayo, who has written a fascinating theoretical paper [pdf] with Gary Becker formally modeling, among other things, the way an idealized process of natural selection would fit organisms with a strong desire for good feelings while also ensuring that the good feelings don’t last very long. In an analogical nutshell: satiation just can’t last long; we’ve got to get hungry all over again to be motivated to get off the couch and look for the next meal. The way I interpret the paper, they nicely show that the process of psychological "adaptation" or "habituation" — the alleged basis of the so-called "hedonic treadmill" — is more a precondition for running at all (like friction) than a way of running in place. Anyway, in the Post article, Rayo points out that not all satisfactions are subject to adaptation.    

More important, [Rayo] went on to say, the psychology literature and surveys clearly show that not all happiness is ephemeral and geared to endlessly moving targets. With nonmaterial things, the target does not move.

"Exercise will absolutely make you feel better. Your social network, family and friends can bring permanent happiness. Longtime relationships can bring long-term satisfaction."

The claim here is… what? Satisfaction from money is hit hard by adaptation, but satisfaction from health and social embeddeness isn’t?

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Buss on True Love

We have a request for more on romance.  Two years ago The Edge asked "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" David Buss answered:

True love.

I’ve spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I’ve documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I’ve discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women deceive and manipulate each other. I’ve studied mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators, and spouse murderers. But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I’ve remained unwavering in my belief in true love.

While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well traveled and their markers are well understood by many – the mesmerizing attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice, and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It’s difficult to define, eludes modern measurement, and seems scientifically wooly. But I know true love exists. I just can’t prove it.

Eliezer and I both considered this to be clearly wishful thinking.  What else do we insist on believing without evidence?

If the payoffs from romance have changed little since our distant ancestors, then our evolved biases are likely to be pretty functional, at least from a selfish genetic point of view.  Does this make romance a better or worse place to focus our energies at overcoming bias? 

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Is Overcoming Bias Male?

We have few comments and no posts by women here.   A few women have mentioned to me privately that our whole project seems rather male.   Since they declined to give me quotes for us to ponder, I have turned to a review of feminist epistemology:

Feminist standpoint theory claims an epistemic privilege … on behalf of the standpoint of women.  … The masculine cognitive style is abstract, theoretical, disembodied, emotionally detached, analytical, deductive, quantitative, atomistic, and oriented toward values of control or domination. The feminine cognitive style is concrete, practical, embodied, emotionally engaged, synthetic, intuitive, qualitative, relational, and oriented toward values of care. …

Postmodernism … questions attempts to transcend our situatedness by appeal to such ideas as universality, necessity, objectivity, rationality, essence, unity, totality, foundations, and ultimate Truth and Reality. It stresses the locality, partiality, contingency, instability, uncertainty, ambiguity and essential contestability of any particular account of the world, the self, and the good. …

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Bias in the Classroom

Imagine I’m a professor who is going to lecture my students on global warming. Further assume that after carefully looking at the evidence I conclude that there is a 60% chance that global warming is true. So if I was the only one to lecture on global warming I would devote 60% of my lecture to evidence in support of the theory and 40% to evidence opposed to it.

 

But now imagine that I know that most of my students will be taught about global warming in other classes. Further assume that all the other professors at my college are 100% certain that global warming is true. These other professors, therefore, will only present evidence in favor of global warming. To cause students to get as unbiased a view as possible of global warming (from my prospective) shouldn’t I devote my entire lecture to criticizing global warming theory?

 

Imagine a professor has some ideology such as libertarianism or Marxism that is unusual at his college.  The professor has this view because after looking at the evidence he decides it provides the best explanation of how the world works.  The professor thinks that 20% of an unbiased education would consist of learning his ideology.  But the professor knows that students won’t encounter his ideology outside of his classroom.  Doesn’t this mean that to help the students get what the professor believes is an unbiased education the professor should devote far more than 20% of his lecture time to discussing his ideology?

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How paranoid should I be? The limits of ‘overcoming bias’.

If the project of ‘overcoming bias’ is rational correction of the biases of spontaneous human cognition, it may hit a limit when it comes to ‘theory of mind’ inferences such as evaluating the dispositions, motivations and intentions of other humans. For instance, trying to answer the question – how paranoid should I be?

We cannot know for sure whether other people intend to harm us, given that such intentions are concealed. If we are too-paranoid we will miss-out on potentially valuable alliances and waste resources on pointless precautions; yet if we are not-paranoid-enough then we will be harmed or even killed (especially in the tribal ancestral human environment, when the brain evolved).

Such social evaluations are the very basis of human intelligence, according to the Machiavellian Intelligence theory that humans evolved big brains to deal with the vast complexities of human social living.

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Evidence-Based Medicine Backlash

Last week’s Time Magazine article on Evidence-Based Medicine seems to me to damn it with faint praise:

Evidence-based medicine, which uses volumes of studies and show-me skepticism to answer such questions, is now being taught–with varying degrees of success–at every medical school in North America. … Advocates believe that evidence-based medicine can go much further, reducing the reliance on expert opinion and overturning the flawed assumptions and even financial incentives that underlie many decisions. … But is such certainty possible–or even desirable? Medicine, after all, is a personalized service, one built around the uniqueness of each patient and the skilled physician’s ability to design care accordingly. …

Consider the case of Dr. Daniel Merenstein, a family-medicine physician trained in evidence-based practice. In 1999 Merenstein examined a healthy 53-year-old man who showed no signs of prostate cancer. As he had been taught, Merenstein explained … there is little evidence that early detection makes a difference in whether treatment could save your life. As a result, the patient did not get a PSA test. Unfortunately, several years later, the patient was found to have a very aggressive and incurable prostate cancer. He sued Merenstein for not ordering a PSA test, and a jury agreed–despite the lack of evidence that it would have made a difference. Most doctors in the plaintiff’s state, the lawyers showed, would have ignored the debate and simply ordered the test. Although Merenstein was found not liable, the residency program that trained him in evidence-based practice was–to the tune of $1 million.

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Politics is the Mind-Killer

People go funny in the head when talking about politics.  The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring:  In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death.  And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation…  When, today, you get into an argument about whether "we" ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed.  Being on the right side of the argument could let you kill your hated rival!

If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it.  If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution.  Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality – but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.

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Disagreement on Inflation

Bryan Caplan points us to a paper by Mankiw, Reis, and Wolfers on disagreement about inflation:

The sticky-information model, according to which some people form expectations based on outdated information, seems capable of explaining many features of the observed evolution of both the central tendency and the dispersion of inflation expectations over the past fifty years.

This seems to me a good example of unproblematic disagreement.  I must have expectations about inflation, but I never talk about them, and I don’t see how I could infer much about other people’s inflation expectations from their behavior.   So if I disagree with others on inflation, I do not knowingly disagree.   And it is only known disagreements that strongly suggest some sort of bias. 

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Moderate Moderation

An editorial board, starting with myself, Nick Bostrom, and Eliezer Yudkowsky, will now moderate the posts here at Overcoming Bias.   Most contributors will not be able to post directly; they will instead write drafts, and it will take one member of the editorial board to approve a draft as a post.

We will select for quality and relevance.  Ideal posts are short, direct, have a clear thesis, and some clear support such as real life example, a quote, an analysis, or a pointer to longer treatment.  Extra points for thoughtful conversation among the contributors.  We won’t shy from controversies, but we don’t want tangential "flamebait" either. 

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